When John Glasel and the Members Party ticket took office at Local 802 in January 1983, I became a member of the Executive Board, a post I held for the next 20 years. John asked me if I’d like to write a column for Allegro, and I said, “Yes, and I know exactly what kind of a column I want to write. Musicians are always getting together in bars and buses and band rooms to tell stories about each other. At some point, someone always says that somebody should write these down. Let me be the guy who does it.”
And so my column – The Band Room – was born. I ran stories that I remembered for the first couple of months, and then everyone got the idea and began sending me material. The column is 30 years old now, and the stories keep coming in…I haven’t had to go searching for material all that time.
As an anniversary memento, here are parts of the first two Band Room columns from February and March 1983. The only dated items are my references to musicians’ bars and the union floor…neither of which exist now. Instead, we have the Internet.
One of the best parts of being in the music business is getting to spend so much time around musicians. I think the understanding that exists between us on a musical level helps us to appreciate each other more. Anyway, most of us seem to enjoy each other’s company, and we spend a lot of time laughing together. Musicians are usually good laughers. In our business it helps. You either learn to laugh, or you cry a lot. We have plenty of criers, but the laughers have them outnumbered. The old joke: “What’s the difference between a cello and a bass? A bass burns longer,” is a good example of laughing to keep from crying.
Bass players get asked about once a week, “Don’t you wish you played the piccolo?” I usually answer, “You mean this isn’t a piccolo?” Outsiders’ attempts at musicians’ jokes rarely hit the mark. Our own jokes are better. “How late does the band play? About half a beat behind the drummer.”
The stories we tell on each other seem to be the ones we like the best. There are at least as many Benny Goodman stories as there are ex-sidemen from his band. There are favorite road stories, conductor stories, eccentric sidemen stories, hard times stories. There are great lines, like Don Joseph’s “I’m barred from bands and banned from bars!” Or Al Thompson’s grand gesture at the bar of the old Charlie’s Tavern, after listening to another musician’s long tale of woe about the scarcity of gigs: “Charlie, give this cat a gig, and put it on my tab!”
In musicians’ bars, on the union floor, backstage at theaters and concert halls, and during breaks on every kind of job, the latest stories make the rounds and the old ones are retold and improved on.
Bobby Hackett was known for never saying anything bad about anyone. When a friend insisted he comment on Adolf Hitler, he said, “Well, he was the best in his field.”
Bobby was offering one of his old trumpets for sale. “It’s worth the money,” he urged. “Above the F, it’s absolutely brand new!”
Eddie Condon was trying to cross 52nd Street one night, and a friend, seeing he was having trouble walking straight, took him by the arm. Eddie indignantly tried to pull away, and lurched toward the opposite curb. The friend pulled him back and yelled, “Eddie, the cars are coming! You’ll be killed!” Eddie gave him a withering look and snapped, “Well, let me do it on my own!”
I was jamming with Zoot Sims and some French jazz players one night in the sub-basement of a Paris bistro. Zoot really tore into one tune, playing chorus after chorus of his own special whoopee, and then, as he turned it over to the piano player, he grinned at me and said, “You know, you can have a lot of fun with these musical instruments!”
Merv Gold recently finished taking a vacation from the pit of the hit show “42nd Street.” Merv doesn’t like vacations. “I had plenty when I wasn’t working.”
One night at Birdland I noticed trombonist Frank Rehak standing by a pillar, sipping a beer and listening to the Basie band. The beard he’d been wearing for years had been recently shaved off. A young woman walked by him, did a double take, and said tentatively, “Frank…?” He looked at her, did his own double take, and said, “Oh, I didn’t recognize you without my beard!”
One of Pepper Adams’ remarks at the February membership meeting: “I’m in favor of getting grants for jazz musicians…or any other good scotch.”